About nine months ago, the publishers of several hyperlocal news Web sites started a Facebook group. While each of their operations focused on very distinct communities, they realized they all were wrestling with common problems: ad sales, technological challenges, social media. Through their discussion, they realized maybe working together would make all of their lives easier.
Then they decided it was time to take the conversation to the next level: They scheduled a meeting at the second annual Block by Block: Community News Summit at Chicago's Loyola University. After conference sessions were over for the day on Friday, September 30, dozens of publishers got together in a private room to talk about forming a trade group to help the nation's wide array of hyperlocal sites grapple with their mutual challenges.
The next morning, Michele McLellan, the founder of Block by Block and a 2009-10 Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow, was about to deliver her closing remarks when she was approached by Mike Fourcher, who runs three hyperlocal news Web sites in Chicago. He asked if, before she wrapped things up, he could make an announcement to the crowd.
It was then that Fourcher told about 100 of his hyperlocal peers that he and some others were about to launch a trade association for hyperlocal publishers. The audience had plenty of questions about specifics, but Fourcher emphasized that many of the details remained to be decided. The key was that the trade group was going to happen.
"Everyone seemed pleased," McLellan says, "I thought it was great." According to McLellan, publishers had long shown interest in banding together, but many lacked the time to set up an alliance: They were too busy covering local news. "They are preoccupied," she says. "They have to be working on their sites all the time."
While, the fledgling group has an overarching mission, it still doesn't have a name or a specific list of services it hopes to provide. "We don't know right now," says Fourcher, the executive secretary of the group. "We're still trying to figure out the priorities."
They've discussed group health insurance, group libel insurance and business training among the possibilities, but nothing is set in stone. But Fourcher believes there is a serious need for "more services for publishers" and sees the group as a way of setting them up.
"We have not yet set specific goals because we recognize that our prospective membership is broad and diverse," Fourcher wrote in an e-mail interview. "As we put together our organization, we want to be respectful of their interests and include them in the design."
Now the publishers will try to find time in their hectic schedules to discuss what happens next.
The group started with about 20 publishers from the United States and Canada, but others have also expressed interest in participating. "This is really lightning in a bottle," Fourcher says.
Although the organization is clearly a work in progress, one thing is certain: AOL's Patch, which is establishing local news sites throughout the nation, will not be included. "They, like other organizations of their size, have a completely different set of needs and interests," Fourcher says. "For the same reason there's the Inland Press Association and the National Newspaper Association [for specific types of newspapers], we think Patch does not fit into our group."
With a different set of problems than the big boys, independent publishers want to seek help and advice from their colleagues at similar ventures, he says. Patch doesn't relate. One of his friends, a senior editor of Patch, focuses on editorial content and doesn't worry about the finances. But Fourcher and others who run small stand-alone sites have to be concerned with both.
"We think we are growing businesses," he says. The goal is that with the help of a trade organization, each business can become more efficient.
But each hyperlocal enterprise is different. Some are run by a married couple, while sometimes it's a solo endeavor. "I wouldn't say I'm typical," Fourcher says. "There isn't a typical."
The nascent group has been gaining media attention on venues such as Street Fight, a Web site that focuses on the world of hyperlocal news.
"I'm a supporter of the independents. I think they've done a wonderful job and are truly reinventing news," says Tom Grubisich, a regular contributor to Street Fight. But with competition from larger organizations and the challenge of attracting enough ad revenue, Grubisich wonders if the formation of a trade association will be enough to keep the hyperlocals in business.
While there is great interest in the hyperlocal news phenomenon, its economics are a bit uncertain. Some operations are making money, but a number of high-profile startups have gone under. "Sustainability" is the key challenge for the sites.
Many independent publishers "start with $3,000 or $4,000 and wing it from there," according to Grubisich. Without big-name advertising, the independents must compete with other sites that are part of companies with solid financial backgrounds.
At the first Block by Block Summit last year, many of the independents didn't know one another but soon discovered that they had many similar problems. From revenue streams and advertising to online engagement and social media, these publishers realized they could learn from one another.
"We're in a brave new world of publishing," Fourcher says. "We've moved beyond the blog and into creating real enterprises with staffs, budgets and organizational issues."
Fourcher runs three Web sites — The Center Square Journal, Roscoe View Journal and Edgeville Buzz — ¬and is working on launching a fourth soon. Each Web site covers a particular neighborhood in Chicago, and he says each serves a specific set of readers. "The boundaries are very purposefully drawn," Fourcher says. "Census data shows they are very different places and the reader survey we just completed last week bears that out even more."
With über-specific targets for each Web site, Fourcher aims to provide blanket coverage of the neighborhoods his sites report on. "We cover all the little things that would never make it into the papers. Parking issues, new stores, development, super local politics," he says. "One of our biggest stories was about how an outgoing alderman had changed a bunch of two way streets to one way without any warning. People were mad about that."
Fourcher's interest in journalism began as a student at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where he edited the school's newspaper. After he graduated, he began working at Purely Political Consulting in Chicago. He took a break to earn his MBA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-start a group that bought "alt papers in second markets." Another company drove Fourcher and his partner out of business, he says, so he returned to politics for seven years before starting his hyperlocal publishing business in January 2010.
"I never lost interest in publishing, so when I had had my fill with politics for good, I looked around for something to do," Fourcher says. "In a market where there was little interest in news media investment, you could bootstrap a hyperlocal and experiment a lot. I put my shoulder to it, and here I am."